The Straight Learning Curve

Heterosexuality under the lens.

Feature by Nine | 10 Jul 2007

Queer people already know what it's like to be straight. That's the effect of indoctrination into a society that disproportionately assumes and rewards heterosexuality. Therefore, writing about heterosexuality for the Opposites issue presents a bit of a challenge: what can I possibly tell you that you don't know already? On the other hand, clueless heterosexuals – even nice well-meaning ones – routinely ask LGBT people lots of intrusive personal questions, on the grounds that, since we're abnormal and they're not, it's reasonable to expect us to explain ourselves.

This questioning often comes from near-strangers, and may be limited to the standard yet mind-boggling "When did you know? How could you tell?", or go on to seek detailed descriptions of what you do in bed and how it could possibly be any match for 'the real thing'. You might also be asked whether you have AIDS, how your family feels about your sexuality, or how you decide who's the 'man' and who's the 'woman' in your relationship. If you're female, you can expect straight men to ask if they can watch, and some idiot to marvel at how you cope without the magical gift of the phallus. If you're male, you can expect a lot of obsessing about anal sex, which is presumed a default part of your repertoire. If you're bi, prepare to explain your entire sexual history so that your interrogator can deduce which gender you 'really' prefer. Transgendered folks, of course, get a really special deal: as well as enduring much confusion between gender and sexuality, and possibly the odd pronoun slip-up, you're expected to explain complicated surgical procedures, how your genitals work, when you had them altered (or when you're going to, or why you're not planning to), and field the insistent cry of "But what was your name before?"

With this in mind, heterosexual Gladys (not her real name) was subjected to a modified version of all the fun. Of course, most of the questions required too much stretching of the imagination (such as envisioning a world in which she'd be considered a virgin for never having slept with a woman) to actually get us anywhere, but here's a small sample of the results.

Says Gladys: "The number of times I looked at one of these questions and thought 'but... but... there just isn't any way to answer that, either sarcastically or honestly'! Quite frankly by the end I was wanting to scream at my imagined interrogator 'LOOK. IT'S JUST THE WAY I AM. I AM A BIG GIRL WITH A BRAIN AND I HAVE MADE THESE DECISIONS AND TO ASSUME THAT I HAVEN'T THOUGHT ABOUT STUFF IS DISRESPECTFUL AND PATRONISING'. I am amazed that more queer people don't just break down like this, and I have an even bigger respect now for my queer friends' patience and tolerance with utter FUCKING IDIOTS."

When did you know you were straight? How could you tell?

"I think I've always known. Primarily, it was the always wanting to kiss boys and have a boyfriend, but never wanting to kiss girls or have a girlfriend."

Have you ever slept with a woman? Kissed a woman? Fancied a woman?

"I have fancied a woman. She was very foxy and also a brilliant feminist academic, was an extremely good friend for a time, and really inspired me to be more 'out' as a feminist. It's true that I don't know whether I'd enjoy sex with a woman. I'll not rule out liking it."

How do you decide who's the butch and who's the femme in your relationship?

"You mean you have to decide, and you can only be one or the other? Well, I'm better at assembling flat pack furniture, and my boyfriend would rather do the dishes than help, so does that mean I'm the butch and he's the femme?"

How do you have sex?

"It's possibly easiest to tell you how I don't have sex - we don't have heteronormative, penetrative sex. We never have done, and aren't in any great rush to do so. I think there's a real problem - one that's writ large in women's magazines - in the assumption that any healthy functioning straight relationship must also include heteronormative sex, preferably in a variety of positions and places. We have great sex, but I'm not going to start having heteronormative sex because I'm supposed to, so that I can be stuck in the 'normal straight relationship' box. And what saddens me is that some of my closest friends would make exactly this judgement if I talked to them about my sex life. They'd genuinely be concerned there was a problem."

Does it bother you that you can't get a civil partnership? Would you want to if it was legal?

"No, I'd stick with a wedding, simply because I have a religious belief and it's important to me to get married in church."

Do you think there ought to be a Straight Pride march or festival?

"Well, I think that every day is a celebration of my sexuality, so an official event isn't really necessary."

Next time someone you've barely been introduced to throws some tiresome questions your way, turn it right back on them. While it's important for people in general to learn about LGBT issues, we're still not going to get much respect or understanding if they don't also learn the importance of boundaries and privacy. It can be pretty effective when someone realises for the first time what it's like to be on the receiving end – and if they suddenly get hostile when you apply this tactic, you'll find out sooner who your real allies are.

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